He went in fast, going over the corpse in the doorway and stepping right.  There wasn’t a good place to move in the entryway; it formed a short hallway that opened up on the kitchen in the open central room, with a double door immediately to the left, that was currently closed.

The closed door wasn’t the immediate threat, though.  The two men and a woman in the kitchen, the woman coming out of the bedroom beyond with what looked like a semi-auto shotgun, were.

He stroked the trigger as he moved, driving forward and slowing just enough that he wouldn’t quite clear the short wall to his right before he dealt with the three threats in front of him.  His first shot took the tall, bald, heavily muscled man, covered in tattoos, high in the chest.  Red blossomed on the man’s white wife-beater and sprayed from his back, spattering the woman with the bobbed hair and red shirt in the face.  She blinked as the man crashed onto his back in front of her, then Huntsman put a bullet through her skull, the thunderclap of the report physically painful in the enclosed space.  Hank could already feel his ears deadening, but he hadn’t wanted to risk missing a vital audible cue while on the stalk.

He’d already started to transition as soon as a part of his mind that was almost completely subconscious had registered that his first shot had blown through the bald man’s heart.  His muzzle swung toward the third man, who had already figured out that things had gone sideways, and was diving to get behind the counter and the sink.  Hank’s first shot clipped him, and he staggered, then disappeared behind the counter.

That presented a problem.  Hank had advanced as he’d fought, and was now at the end of the short wall on his right.  There were several open doors ahead and to either side of him, but the space right next to him was the most immediate threat, simply because he couldn’t see into it.  And he was pretty sure that the wall wasn’t bulletproof, which meant that if there was anyone over there, they were going to start blasting through it in a matter of seconds.

Which, of course, was why he had a stack with him.  He felt a hand squeeze his shoulder as a muzzle was leveled past his ear.  One of the others was with him, and he had the go ahead.

He hooked around the end of the wall and ran right into another sicario.

The man was small and wiry, with a pointed, weaselly face and a scrubby, unkempt beard and mustache.  He’d been crouched behind the wall, an AR pistol in his hands.  Hank had a split second to recognize the threat, and kicked the smaller man in the chest, knocking the muzzle aside.  It smashed into the plaster, gouging a hole in the wall as the man toppled backward.

Hank stomped on him as he tried to wrestle the pistol back around while simultaneously trying to grab the AR-10’s muzzle.  The man folded around his size twelve boot, but didn’t stop trying to reach for the rifle as Hank lifted it clear, taking it out of his shoulder in the process.  He shifted his foot to stomp on the little man’s gun arm as the pistol started to come away from the wall and toward his face, and he saw the man’s expression, already stark with desperation, twist in pain as his radius and ulna snapped under Hank’s boot.  The pistol clattered to the floor, as muzzle blast slapped both of them over Hank’s shoulder.  He just barely saw another figure collapse backward against a couch in a welter of blood that splashed across the cream-colored leather upholstery.

The man beneath him was still fighting, trying to hook his legs around Hank’s and still desperately trying to get a grip on the rifle muzzle.  Despite the intense pain he had to be in with his broken arm, he was hardened enough to still realize that his life was on the line.  He was twisting and squirming, desperately trying to keep Hank from getting a shot at him, and so far, he was succeeding; it was a fight enough just to stay on his feet with the skinny sicario underneath him.

The man got a foot behind his ankle, and he lunged to the side, deliberately slamming his shoulder into the wall to brace himself before he pulled his foot back and planted it hard on the man’s throat.

The fight suddenly went out of the sicario for a moment as his eyes bulged and he gasped for breath.  It gave Hank the split second he needed to get his rifle back in his shoulder.  He barely aimed; his muzzle was almost touching his adversary’s skull when he put a bullet between the man’s eyes.  The crack sounded like the world’s biggest slamming door, and the man’s head bounced, his eyes bulging around the smoking hole in his forehead.  Blood splashed from the entry wound, spattered by the muzzle blast from less than a foot away, covering Hank’s boots with flecks of red.  A crimson puddle started to flow out from under the man’s shattered skull.

He stepped away from the corpse, snapping his rifle up and scanning across the room.  The alcove he’d stepped into had formed the living room, framed by three couches and a couple of easy chairs, with a coffee table—currently covered in porn and drug paraphernalia—in the center.  The other rooms of the house were arranged in a U-shape around the other side of the central, open kitchen.

The rest of his team was already half-finished clearing those rooms, moving clockwise around the rough circle of the house.  Even as he took in the situation at a glance, Huntsman and Faris kicked in the door across from him and went in.  He noted that Faris, who was Third Squad’s squad leader, let Huntsman go first.

That was an issue for another time.  Rifle shots slammed in the room, but he was already moving toward the nearest door, off to his right, with the man who’d entered the living room with him, whom he’d only just then seen was Calvin, falling in at his shoulder, rifle up and covering the uncleared door between them and the room that Faris and Huntsman had just entered.

The door ahead was open, and all he could see from his angle was another blank wall, with the jamb of another door just visible inside.  He didn’t pause at the doorway.  He could feel Calvin right at his back, the other man’s elbow pressing against his shoulder.  Instead, he simply flowed in, button-hooking around the doorjamb.

He hit the door itself, which was half-open, and rode it around, his weapon tracking across the master bedroom as he moved.  He took in the queen-sized bed, empty and with the covers thrown aside, as he swept across it.  Then he’d reached the limit of the door’s movement, pinning it back against the wall with his boot as his eyes and muzzle cleared the far corner.  The bedroom was empty.

He turned back toward the inside door.  That was probably the master bathroom.  And the door was closed.

He stepped wide, trying to stay out of the direct line of the doorway, but coming up against the side of the bed.  He still stayed as far over to the right as he could get.

A moment later, his caution was rewarded as a shotgun blast blew a fist-sized hole through the hollow interior door, scattering fragments over the plush carpet and rattling buckshot into the plaster of the far wall.

Calvin had held back, having taken up a position just inside the bedroom door, though he was exposed to the open area they’d come from.  Now, he put his back to the inside wall and donkey-kicked the bathroom door, sending the wrecked and splintered door crashing in.  It swung and bounced off the short interior wall inside, but that gave Hank his opening.

He didn’t run right in at first, but leaned out, clearing what he could see as he moved.  And he saw the man with the shotgun crouched in the toilet alcove beyond the sink and the counter, and his red dot settled naturally on the man’s head from less than three yards away.

His rifle had already been off safe, and it took a fraction of a second for his gloved finger to slip inside the trigger guard.  The rifle bucked in his shoulder as the rifle boomed in the doorway.  The man’s head jerked back, red spattering on the porcelain and the tan-painted plaster behind him, and he slumped off the toilet and fell on his face, crumpled into an unnatural position on the bloodied tiles.

Hank had only paused for a heartbeat to take the shot, and now he drove through the door, hooking around the short wall into the dressing alcove while Calvin moved behind him, going straight toward the dead man in front of the toilet.

The alcove took a brief glance to clear.  It was empty.  A moment later, Calvin called out, “Small room, clear.”

Lowering his rifle, Hank stepped out of the bathroom.  “Clear,” he called, just to make sure that none of the rest of his Triarii came charging into the room and misidentified the two men in desert tan and carrying rifles.  It was unlikely, given how hard they’d trained together, but combat gets men amped up like training can never quite simulate, and he’d seen some pretty boneheaded moves in training.

“All clear,” came the reply.  Hank’s eyes narrowed slightly as he recognized the voice.  Huntsman was stepping up that night, but it meant that Faris wasn’t.  Which was a problem when Faris was supposed to be the damn squad leader.

Hank stepped out into the great room, such as it was.  There was a skylight over the kitchen, and another over the living room, but it was the middle of the night.  Two of the floor lamps had been blasted to wreckage in the short, sharp firefight inside, but the recessed ceiling lights were still on, casting a warm, yellowish glow over the interior.

“Everybody shut up for a second,” he said, as he stepped back toward the open front door where they’d made entry.  He stuck his head out and listened.

A few shots still echoed across the desert, but they mostly seemed to be coming from outside.  A sudden fusillade of six 7.62 shots thundered from the south, and then everything went quiet.

“Calvin, get my radio out,” Hank said, jerking his support hand thumb toward his pack.

Calvin didn’t have to dig much; the radio pouch was MOLLEed onto the side of the pack.  He came out with the radio and handed it to Hank, who twisted the dial to turn it on.

“All Papa Two Four stations, this is Six,” he called.  “Status.”

“Target Two, clear,” Spencer replied.

“Target Three is clear,” Lovell said, sounding, as ever, more like a stereotypical surfer than a soldier.

“We had two squirters from Target Two,” LaForce said.  “Both are neutralized.”

“Roger,” Hank replied, checking his watch.  It had been a grand total of about fifteen minutes from when he’d left his position in the wash.  “Check the bodies, then rally at the exfil point.  I want to be off the X in ten minutes, starting now.  Six out.”

He stuffed the radio into a side pouch of his vest; he wasn’t planning on crawling again unless things really went south, and they’d hit the meeting hard enough and fast enough that it was unlikely that any Soldados de Aztlan QRF was going to get there anytime soon.  Certainly not within the next ten minutes.

He turned back inside.  The other Triarii who weren’t holding security on the two exterior doors were checking over the corpses, taking quick photos of dead faces.  Huntsman looked up as Hank came back into the main room; Faris was leaning against the wall on the other side of the kitchen, and only straightened up when Hank shot him a look.

“Doesn’t look like Muñoz was here, boss,” Huntsman said.  The young man had been a SWAT cop in Tucson until he’d joined up.  He was built like a fireplug, with fiery red hair currently covered by a tan do-rag, and a freckled ginger-kid complexion hidden by sand and loam camouflage face paint.  His green eyes stood out in the desert tones.  “None of them are matching the facial recognition pattern.”  There weren’t many photos of Muñoz available, and he was clearly heavily disguised in the ones they had, but a couple had provided a good angle to measure distances between eyes, nose, cheekbones, and chin.

“Damn,” Hank muttered, looking down at the weaselly man he’d shot in the face from less than a foot away.  “This was supposed to be the main meeting house.”

“We’ve got somebody, though,” Fernandez said.  Fernandez was every bit as wide as Huntsman, only standing a head taller.  With his black hair cropped short and a short goatee, he looked like a shaved gorilla.  “Check this out.”

Hank joined him and looked down at the body lying beside the bed in one of the smaller bedrooms.  The dead man had fallen on his face, but Fernandez had toed him over, and he was now sprawled on his back in a slowly drying stain of his own blood on the carpet.

Hank tilted his head to get a better look.  The face was somewhat distorted since a .30 caliber bullet had gone through it.  “Is that Cruz?”

Fernandez was tucking the camera back in his chest rig.  “Pretty sure it is,” he said.  “Antonio Eduardo Alonso Cruz, in the flesh.”  He shrugged.  “Well, not so much anymore.  He’s gone.  But that’s what’s left of him.”

Hank just snorted.  Cruz had been on their radar for almost as long as Muñoz.  He’d been a minor narco capo who had tried to run a coup against the leadership of the Sinaloa Federation, failed, and run across the border, taking up with the Soldados de Aztlan to try to save his own skin.  The SdA had a lot of known narcos in their ranks, and while they were nowhere near as brutal as some of the cartels running around Mexico and the Southwest, they presented enough of a threat to give Cruz some protection.

He’d rapidly become Muñoz’ right-hand-man, in large part because of his charisma and his cruelty.  That was over, anyway.

“Well,” Hank muttered, “at least it’s not a complete dry hole if Muñoz is a no-show.”

“Six, this is Five,” Spencer’s voice crackled over the radio.  “Dry hole.  We’re pulling off to the rally point.”

“This is One,” Lovell called.  Even over the radio, he still managed to sound like he was half asleep.  “We’ve got some minor players, but no sign of Sidewinder.”  Even with encryption, the Triarii didn’t necessarily want to transmit names, even of targets, over the radio.  Some genius had started giving all the High Value Targets around the Southwest snake code names.  Muñoz was Sidewinder.

“Roger,” Hank replied.  “No sign of Sidewinder here, either, but we got Massasauga.  Moving to the rally point now.”

“What about her?” DeVoto asked.  The skinny man was looking down at the woman who’d been blasted when she’d come out into the kitchen area with two shotguns.  She’d taken three rounds to the torso, but her face was otherwise untouched, except for a few drops of blood on her chin.  She was Hispanic, with black hair in a bob cut, wearing a tight, crop-top red and black striped t-shirt, now soaked in her own blood.  “She looks familiar.”

Hank shone his weapon light on the corpse.  She did look familiar.  But not from one of the narco/Soldados intel briefs.

“I don’t know,” he said, glancing at his watch again.  They had about two more minutes.  “Get pictures, then we need to be gone.”  Fernandez stepped up with the camera, and the flash flickered in the abattoir that had been an underground kitchen until a few minutes before.

“Time’s up,” Hank barked.  “Everybody out and back to the rally point.  Tactical column; let’s not get sloppy.”

A few minutes later, all that was left in the trio of houses were bodies, bullet holes, and bloodstains.

Crimson Star is now up for pre-order, going live on Thursday, January 30.  And, for a limited time, Escalation is only $0.99 on Kindle.

Crimson Star Chapter 2

Peter Nealen

Peter Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He deployed to Iraq in 2005-2006, and again in 2007, with 1st Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Recon Bn. After two years of schools and workups, including Scout/Sniper Basic and Team Leader's Courses, he deployed to Afghanistan with 4th Platoon, Force Reconnaissance Company, I MEF. Since he got out, he's been writing, authoring many articles and 24 books, mostly Action/Adventure and Military Thrillers, with some excursions into Paranormal Fantasy and Science Fiction.

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